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Preschool Prophets

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Recently, while explaining to my four-year-old daughter that she could have only one cookie, she replied, “No problem, Daddy. You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” Wow, I thought, that sounds pretty grown-up.

Later, during yoga class, I wondered how I could encourage people to forgive themselves if they’re not as strong or as flexible as they’d like to be. How could I get them to receive what was being safely offered by their bodies, one breath at a time?

As I dug into my reservoir of yogic insights, I considered Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga, especially the first two limbs, yama (control) and niyama (observance). The yama of ahimsa (nonviolence) and the niyama of santosha (contentment) were brought to mind, and I came up with—you guessed it—”You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

Kids often have an uncanny ability to distill wisdom into its simplest form. What else, I wondered, have kids been telling us that we overlook or dismiss as childish simplicity? Here are a few things I’ve observed:

Preschool Proverb No. 1: “Own up when you mess up.” This playground favorite goes straight to the heart of Patanjali’s second yama, satya, or truthfulness. In promoting not just truthfulness, but integrity in the face of fear (punishment), the preschool proverb also encapsulates a subtler meaning of the yama, which is to be true to yourself, to be authentic, regardless of the outcome.

Preschool Proverb No. 2: “Sharing doubles the fun.” This oft-heard phrase usually comes from the empty-handed child eyeing another kid with something “hugely cool” in her arms. But when it comes from the child who seeks to share what she already has, this simple saying blends elements of the fifth yama, aparigraha, or nonpossessiveness, as well as a burgeoning sense of tapas, or austerity, the third niyama.

Kids (and adults, too) can experience greater joy by letting go of the need to own and possess and allowing someone they care about to share in the experience of joy. Eventually, they may even come to value the joy of sharing and making someone else feel good over the less enduring joy of owning in solitude. This is aparigraha preschool-style.

Preschool Proverb No. 3: “If it’s not your sack, put it back.” This final offering speaks to the third yama, asteya, or nonstealing, while bundling the message of the second niyama, santosha. Critical to the understanding of “nonstealing” is the idea that the very act of stealing, regardless of whether someone discovers our theft, has an effect on our path. This knowledge changes our motivation so that we refrain from stealing not because we fear getting caught but because we want to engage in right action and preserve our integrity.

Integral to both asteya and santosha is the notion that regardless of what we have or do not have, coveting the possessions or relationships of others can only be a source of turbulence, rather than stillness.

Adults often tend to make essential truths overly complex. Viewing these lessons through the eyes of children reminds us of the power of simplicity. Maybe, in the end, everything we need to know about liberation we really did learn in preschool, in pint-size scoops. Hmm, I wonder if Patanjali had kids?